One of the mouthpieces and and mighty pens of the new atheist movement, Sam Harris, has recently released a book claiming to show how science, in principle, may give an account for morality. Released in October, Harris’ new work, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, has garnered some attention in the momentous claim he is making.
I will admit up front that I have not read the book. (Being a poor newly-wed who is still in graduate school hinders one from buying a new book at retail.) But in reading interviews with Sam Harris on his new work and various reviews, one can get a sense for the thesis and basic argument.
Harris proposes that scientific inquiry and method can and does shed light on questions of value (and not just questions of fact). In other words, morality can be discovered and described through science (Harris focuses on his own field of interest, neuroscience) to show that there is no transcendental basis needed for such discourse. Again, in not having read the book, I cannot comment on particulars. Though it seems as if Harris does not claim that science does answer all moral questions. Rather, Harris claims that within a particular viewpoint of what morality is, neuroscience is a viable (and perhaps, the best) starting point for ethics.
The very definition of morality is important for Harris. From various interviews, reviews, and lectures by Harris on his book, Harris defines morality or “being morally good” as providing the maximal amount of happiness for the maximal amount of people. It is “generally good” to increase happiness and pleasure for more people than it is to increase pain and suffering for more people. And neuroscience gives us insight into the pleasure/happiness of people (along with pain/suffering). Thus, science can (in principle) determine human values.
Along with his promotion of science as the potential guardian of ethics, Harris also wishes to to avoid ethical relativism and certain portions of the postmodern turn. Human flourishing is important, and we need to know what is truly, or objectively, good in order to provide happiness and not suffering.
This work seems to be a logical next step for the New Atheist movement as it combats the apologetic of various religious groups. The “moral argument” for God’s existence has been a problem for skeptics for centuries. In the last sixty years, C.S. Lewis’ formulation of the moral argument has given ammo to many Christians to argue for theism. Harris’ thesis is a rhetorically powerful attempt to reverse the Lewisian tide.
While one would think my Christian beliefs would give me reason to disagree with Harris’ thesis, I actually have found my own philosophical training lead me in finding problems with this work.
First, the very definition of morality is guided by a faulty ethical presupposition. As Kwame Anthony Appiah of the New York Times has pointed out, Harris is recapitulating the 200-year-old ethical theory known as utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham and and John Stuart Mill are the British minds who espoused this system. As far as I know, Harris has never made the connection from neuroscience to utilitarianism. Rather, he assume utilitarianism and uses neuroscience as a basis to confirm certain values. So while Harris’ contributions from neuroscience are unique and novel, his ethical system isn’t.
So one who is examining Harri’s work would do well to go to his foundational assumption that utilitarianism is true. Yet, the proposition “utilitarianism is true” is indeed a value claim and isn’t proved by science. Harris tries to deny this by noting his disagreement with David Hume’s famous “fact-value dichotomy.” Yet, Harris has a problem because he can’t make the leap from observational description to moral prescription. In other words, why think that if it is the case that a majority of people could be happy or be benefited to a certain extent that we actually ought to work towards such a state of affairs? Why not work towards pain and displeasure? Harris and others would say, “Well…it’s just obvious that true morality works towards happiness.” At this point, neuroscience is out the window. Observational description isn’t appealed to. Rather, Harris’ own presupposed moral prescript is being appealed to. So the question is, why accept Harris’ ethical system and not someone elses?
Along with the arbitrary setting by which utilitarianism receives promotion from Harris, there are a number of problems with the theory itself. Utiltarianism, like most consequentialist ethical systems, suffers from infinite regress of actions to eventually lead to the maximum happiness/benefit of the maximum amount of people, which makes one wonder why choose one chain of actions over another? If we do not know the true, total end of a chain, then how can one judge one chain to be better than another? Also, philosophers have noted the problem of how a utilitarian ethic actually distributes happiness/benefit in the most just manner. This leads me to my second overall contention against Harris’ sytem.
Second, what is to prevent Harris’ own worst nightmare – namely – the rise of Nietzschean power politics? With utilitarianism’s lack of distributive justice, how does one avoid the eschatalogical telos of Nietzsche? We will never be truly moral or truly fair, so why not maximize the happiness of a minority of people (which so happens to include my best friend since I was five years old)? Harris is clear in stating his dislike for postmodern epistemology, but it is difficult to avoid a postmodern ethic with his proposal. I agree with Harris that postmodern linguistic philosophers are wrong to deny the possibility of rational objectivity in the human mind, but Harris is wrong if he thinks that psychological objectivity exists even within the most properly functioning human mind.
Third and finally, Harris clearly rejects relativistic ethics without wanting to prescribe moral absolutism, but he still falls into the anti-objectivist camp in the end. If Harris’ neuroscientific version of utilitarianism is true, the plaguing question for Harris and co’ is this, Why assume that our propose moral prescription “x” is objectively true? Meaning, this moral precept (ex. “torturing little children is evil”) seems to resonate with a great number of individuals (though not all individuals). We see that our genetic makeup and chemical framework would have us not do this act, but why assume that this precept is objectively true? There is nothing outside our neurological state of affairs to say that it is. Alvin Plantinga’s objection remains viable as to whether biological evolutionary processes (BEP) actually promotes “true beliefs.” As much as we know about BEP from the Harris-Hawkins-Stenger camp, there is no reason to think that BEP is interested in propagating “true beliefs” in the mind. BEP could propagate either true beliefs or false beliefs since both kinds of beliefs may further the evolutionary end for our species. To claim that BEP propagates true beliefs (ideally) is to make a philosophical claim (and really, a presupposition) which goes beyond the laboratory. One wonders if the scientism (hard or soft) of Harris would accept such a notion.
For these reasons, I myself remain skeptical of the recent proposal by the famous skeptic himself. Ultimately, one has to wonder if Harris and those who adopt his epistemology are being intellectually honest and aren’t borrowing cognitive capital from some other system of thought.